Chris Hamby, over at Buzzfeed, has an incredible and crazy story about the DEA impersonating a woman, creating a fake Facebook profile without her knowledge or permission, and posting photos from her seized cell phone, all in order to try to get information from others. Even more crazy: a court has said this behavior is fine.
By Mike Masnick via Techdirt
The specifics involve a woman, Sondra “Sosa” Arquiett, who was apparently the girlfriend of Jermaine Branford, a guy who was accused of (and eventually pleaded guilty to) drug trafficking. Arquiett was a minor player, charged with basically allowing Branford to use her apartment for storing and processing the cocaine he was trafficking. Arquiett was eventually sentenced to probation.
Where this gets interesting, however, is that Arquiett has now filed a civil suit against the US and DEA agent Timothy Sinnigen, who allegedly set up the fake Facebook account. Arquiett claims she never had a Facebook account, and only found out about the fake DEA one when a friend mentioned something about photos she was posting — photos that the DEA had from seizing her phone. The details are laid out clearly in the lawsuit. Arquiett was arrested in July of 2010. By August, Sinnegen had set up the fake Facebook profile using information and photos from her phone, without telling Arquiett at all. Arquiett notes that:
The photographs used by Sinnigen included revealing and/or suggestive photographs of Plaintiff, including photographs of the Plaintiff in her bra and panties. Sinnigen also posted photographs of Plaintiff’s minor child and her minor niece to Facebook.
The DEA then allegedly used the fake profile to try to contact other acquaintances who may have been involved in drug trafficking. This went on for at least three months before she discovered it. Sinnigen apparently flat out admitted it when confronted about it. Arquiett notes that, beyond the basic invasion of privacy reasons to be concerned, the whole thing may have put her in danger:
… by posing as her on Facebook, Sinnegen had created the appearance that Plaintiff was willfully cooperating in his investigation of the narcotics trafficking ring, thereby placing her in danger.
In the DEA’s response to the lawsuit, they admit to setting up the fake profile and contacting possible drug dealers, but insist this is all perfectly fine.
Defendants admit that Plaintiff did not give express permission for the use of photographs contained on her phone on an undercover Facebook page, but state the Plaintiff implicitly consented by granting access to the information stored in her cell phone and by consenting to the use of that information to aid in an ongoing criminal investigations.
It’s one thing to say “use the information seized for investigations” and quite another to “fake my identity and pretend to be me.” Furthermore, the response argues:
Plaintiff relinquished any expectation of privacy she may have had to the photographs contained on her cell phone.
Plaintiff consented to the search of her cell phone.
Plaintiff consented to use of information contained on her cell phone in ongoing criminal investigations.
Plaintiff cannot establish a violation of her substantive due process rights because she has not, and cannot, allege that Defendant Sinnigen’s alleged actions were taken with the absence of a legitimate governmental interest.
Again, consenting to the use of the information is very different from saying “hey, go impersonate me.” But, again, this is the DEA we’re talking about, and they have quite a bit of history to playing fast and loose with legal boundaries to try to go after folks. Buzzfeed quotes numerous legal experts saying it’s a massive stretch to go from consenting to using the information in an investigation, to arguing that means it’s okay to impersonate the individual and pretend they’re engaged in ongoing conversations with potential drug dealers.
This effort also almost certainly violates Facebook’s terms of service, though it’s unclear how Facebook feels about law enforcement folks doing so. Either way, it’s yet another example of very questionable investigative techniques used online by law enforcement, and the DEA in particular.
This article originally appeared on Techdirt.